Underwater in Belize
By Melissa Gaskill
Scuba divers know Belize’s Ambergris Caye for the iconic Blue Hole. Actually a collapsed cave, this dive site's main attraction is ancient stalactites more than 100 feet deep. That makes for a challenging--and short--dive, so it's not high on my wish list. But there are plenty of other diving and snorkeling opportunities here, which I recently spent a week exploring.
Half Moon Caye
On an all-day outing from San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, while other divers checked Blue Hole off their lists, I snorkeled along its coral edge, enjoying a variety of marine life and even spying a couple of schools of squid.
Our boat then docked at Half Moon Caye where we paused for lunch and then followed a trail to a forest sanctuary rife with red-footed boobies. An observation deck made it possible for us to watch them and their chicks at eye level.
There’s excellent snorkeling right off the beach here, and I spent so much time face down in the water eyeing the marine life (including an octopus, conch and hundreds of tiny tropical fish) that I ended up with the snorkeler’s tan: a red back.
In the afternoon, we dove Half Moon Wall, where fissures in the reef wall form canyons and sandy valleys, and then two sites off nearby Long Caye--Eagle Ray Wall, and the Aquarium. On every dive, sharks and rays cruised by, and I paddled through schools of wildly colored fish over coral and sponges of all shapes and sizes. The Caribbean water was clear and visibility almost unlimited.
Shark Ray Alley
There are also many excellent dive and snorkel spots along a reef less than half a mile off Ambergis Caye. Most famous is Shark Ray Alley, where the current rips through an opening in the reef and sharks and rays congregate in the shallow, clear water.
Near Caye Caulker, a mile-long island just to the south, sea grass beds attract manatees. We took an outing that included lunch cooked on the beach on Caulker followed by snorkeling with these odd creatures. I admired their perfect buoyancy control.
Southern Belize & Whale Sharks
Whale sharks also lure many divers to Belize. The best time to see these spotted, plankton-eating sharks the size of trucks is spring, and the best place, Gladden Spit, about an hour offshore from Placencia in southern Belize. The Spit is a whale shark reserve where rangers patrol for fish poachers, who are also dissuaded by the presence of divers.
Here, outside the barrier reef, huge swells make getting off and on the boat a challenge, but a few feet below the surface, the wave action disappears. Our bottom limit was 80 feet, the reef still below us, so we were surrounded by endless blue ocean. Only the occasional school of silvery fish and a pod of dolphins interrupted this watery space. I scanned constantly for enormous shadows, but without success. This is the open ocean, after all, and whale sharks keep their own schedules.
Glover’s Reef is another don’t-miss dive in southern Belize. We had this thriving reef two hours from shore all to ourselves, making three dives among the corals, sponges and fans populated by clouds of technicolor fish, along with odd denizens such as Balloonfish and Batfish.
Belize’s reef is part of the Mesoamerican Reef, the second largest in the world. Thanks to protection and a somewhat remote location, much of it remains healthy and vibrant. For those, like me, who love the ocean and diving or snorkeling, it is a must-do adventure.
Photos: Courtesy of Avadon Divers; top photo by Tony Rath, scuba divers by Mike Tougas.
About Melissa Gaskill, What an Adventure! columnist
Texas-based writer Melissa Gaskill has covered science and travel, especially the outdoor, sustainable kind, for American Way, Family Fun, Nature, Scientific American, Texas Highways, Men's Journal and Backpacker.com. She travels frequently throughout the US, Mexico and the Caribbean, and loves to camp, hike, kayak, snorkel and scuba dive. She's always looking for ways to tie together her science background and passion for travel and the ocean. Melissa is the author of Best Hikes with Dogs:
Texas Hill Country and Gulf Coast and is currently working on a second book.